Advocates renew push to license illegal immigrants

·3 min read

Jun. 23—BOSTON — People living in the U.S. illegally would be allowed to get Massachusetts driver's licenses under a Democratic-led plan that has been resurrected on Beacon Hill.

On Wednesday, the Legislature's Joint Committee on Transportation heard testimony from dozens of supporters and opponents of a perennial proposal to allow all qualified residents, regardless of immigration status, to apply for a standard state license or identification card.

One of the proposal's lead sponsors, Sen. Brendan Crighton, D-Lynn, said with immigration reform stalled in Congress, many undocumented workers have few chances of citizenship.

"For many undocumented residents there is simply no reasonable or viable path to citizenship or even legal status," Crighton told the committee during a live-streamed hearing. "They work here, they've bought homes here and raised their family here, and, yes, they pay taxes."

Crighton and other supporters of the measure say allowing undocumented immigrants to get licenses will improve public safety.

If approved, undocumented immigrants could only acquire standard driver's licenses but not federally authorized REAL ID-compliant versions.

Applicants would still be required to produce a birth certificate, or at least one official document. They would also need to prove Massachusetts residency in order to get a state driver's license.

At least 14 states, including Connecticut and Vermont, allow residents to get some type of license or permit regardless of immigration status, supporters say.

But the proposal has its share of critics who say authorizing licenses will reward individuals who have broken the law by living in the U.S. illegally.

The Massachusetts Coalition for Immigration Reform, which opposes the plan, said the proposal is meant "to make it easier for illegal aliens to live in our state" and will "do nothing at all to improve road safety." The group says it also raises the possibility that terrorists could obtain a state driver's license or ID.

"This bill is bad for workers and taxpayers in the commonwealth, and bad for national security," said John Thompson, a spokesman for the group.

More than 100 Democratic lawmakers have signed on to the latest proposals.

Locally, Reps. Lori Ehrlich, D-Marblehead, Christina Minicucci, D-North Andover, Sally Kerans, D-Danvers, Marcos Devers, D-Lawrence, Frank Moran, D-Lawrence, Tram Nguyen, D-Andover, Andy Vargas, D-Haverhill, and Sen. Joan Lovely, D-Salem, are co-sponsors of the two bills.

If approved, the measure faces an almost certain veto from Gov. Charlie Baker, who has repeatedly said he opposes giving licenses to illegal immigrants.

The Legislature's Republican minority also opposes the changes, and some GOP lawmakers have filed proposals in the past to block licenses for illegal immigrants.

It's not clear if Democrats who support the measure could muster the two-thirds supermajority vote needed to override a veto by Baker.

The recurring debate over driver's licenses for illegal immigrants has picked up steam in recent years.

Last year advocates staged a hunger strike and camped out in front of the Statehouse, calling on lawmakers to approve the changes. Despite the effort, and support from Senate President Karen Spilka, D-Ashland, the legislation wasn't taken up for a vote by the end of the session.

Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group's newspapers and websites. Email him at cwade@cnhi.com

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